It’s debatable whether or not history is written by the victors, but it’s certainly remembered from the point of view of those most affected. So though Norwegians likely know all about the events depicted in the gripping, finely made “The King’s Choice,” it will be news to everyone else, and that’s a good thing.
Strongly performed by unfamiliar actors and crisply directed by Norway’s Erik Poppe, “The King’s Choice” is a dramatic tale about a pivotal World War II moment, a story infused with tension and psychological conflict that’s all the more engrossing for being fresh to us.
The king in question is Norway’s Haakon VII, and the choice he came to during three hectic days in April of 1940 not only determined his country’s specific fate during the war, it speaks to broader questions about the moral role of leaders, whether they be constitutional monarchs or not.
As written by Jan Trygve Royneland and Harald Rosenlow-Eeg, “The King’s Choice” gives short shrift to hindsight. Its intent is to show us how difficult it is to see clearly during times of crisis, how what seems as simple as black and white today was the source of uncertainty and soul-searching when it happened.
For the conflicts in this film go beyond the obvious one between invading Germans and invaded Norwegians. A significant part of “The King’s Choice” deals with serious internal disagreements on both sides of the battle line, and a key German official, far from being vilified, is shown to be hostile to invasion and a passionate believer in negotiation over military might.
Before the film properly begins, type on screen fills in non-Norwegians on essential backstory. Norway broke away from Sweden in 1905 to become its own country and chose a Danish royal, who took the name Haakon VII, to be its new king, with his infant son becoming the newly minted Crown Prince Olav.
“The King’s Choice” begins on April 8, 1940, with the now elderly King Haakon (veteran Danish actor Jesper Christensen) gleefully playing hide and seek with his lively grandchildren in the snowy courtyard of Crown Prince Olav’s estate.
Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is in a less cheerful mood. Though Norway insists that it is neutral in the war, German warships are on the way, allegedly to help the country against a putative British invasion.
More impulsive and quicker to anger than his father, Olav is determined to do something, anything, as fast as possible. But Haakon, looking like the weight of the world is on him (as it surely is) and keenly aware of the constitutional nature of the monarchy, wants to make sure that the government has its say and that negotiations that might save lives are always pursued.
“The King’s Choice” intercuts this location with several others, including the tense situation at Oscarsborg Fortress as the Norwegian military has to determine whether to fire on the Germans, and the German legation, where that country’s envoy, Curt Brauer (Karl Markovics), is intent on doing whatever he can to keep his own country’s military at bay.
The film’s narrative extends over just two more days, but they are packed with incident and conflict. April 9 begins with Haakon and Olav and their family needing to flee from the invaders, and the scene of the chaos that results when German planes strafe their train is vivid and involving.
Brauer, for his part, is trying to persuade the Norwegian government to call the unfolding invasion “voluntary cooperation,” while simultaneously battling his own country’s ascendant military, intent on shooting everything in sight, and his own young wife, who has political ideas of her own.
On the Norwegian side, not only do Haakon and Olav have serious policy disputes, but the crown prince is also in conflict with his wife, Crown Princess Martha (Tuva Novotny) about what his personal course of action should be.
Meanwhile, the king and his son are moving ever further north, trying to stay one step ahead of the Germans. Defending them are a small group of Norwegian soldiers, including a very young Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), who impulsively promises to give his all for the monarch.
Though touched by the boy’s naive earnestness, Haakon gently corrects him. “We give our all for Norway, not the king,” he says. And it is his unbending determination to do what he thinks is best for the country that becomes the central drama of this very satisfying film.
‘The King’s Choice’
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7, Pasadena